There are many definitions of nationalism, but most center around the political idea that humanity naturally divides into nations that have ascertainable characteristics. Such characteristics vary, but may include a shared language, culture, values, religion, race or ethnicity, and/or common land. The nation should be self-governed, politically sovereign, and as independent as possible. Nationalism also includes a state of mind, whereby supreme loyalty should be to the nation state and its cultures and values, and the nation should exist inside of some national borders. Nationalist movements do not require a connection to an existing nation state; rather, they occasionally focus on the potential of becoming one. Lauren Fielder, Is Nationalism the Most Serious Challenge to Human Rights? Warnings from BREXIT and Lessons from History, Texas International Law Journal, Volume 53, Spring, 2018

Human rights are things to which every human, regardless of the nation s/he belongs to, is deemed entitled.

Nationalism has no agreed upon definition.  Among other things it has been used to mean “a feeling of unity with a group beyond one’s immediate family and friends,”[1] “advocacy of or support for the political independence of a particular nation or people,”[2] “the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination,”[3] and “identification with one's own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.”[4]  Hence, nationalists may or may not be concerned with human rights.  George Washington was a nationalist.   So was Adolf Hitler.

What about world leaders today?  Donald Trump, the former President of the United States, attacked the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, limited access to women’s health care, violated the rights of protestors demanding racial justice, withdrew from multilateral institutions, and called for bringing back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,”[5] Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil promotes the deforestation of the Amazon, harasses journalists,  and also claims to be pro-torture.”  Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India “is using technology to curtail human rights as part of its broadening crackdown on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”[6]  Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, heads a government “that deprives citizens of their rights on a sweeping scale and systematically curtails freedoms as a way to retain power.”[7]  Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, heads a government that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cited for perpetrating “gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights violations at home and abroad.”[8]  Victor Orbán, the President of Hungry “built a militarized fence along Hungary’s southern border, and, in defiance of both E.U. law and the Geneva Conventions, expelled almost all asylum seekers from the country.”[9]  Recep Tayip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, “has for years rooted his religiously tinged nationalism in an embrace of his nation’s Ottoman imperial past.”[10]

Yet all of them are considered nationalists.

The answer to the question What is the relationship between nationalism and human rights? therefore, depends on how nationalism is defined.  For a discussion of how nationalism relates to patriotism go to  For a discussion of different types of nationalism including civic nationalism, cultural nationalism, ethnic nationalism, expansionist nationalism, romantic nationalism, and religious nationalism go to For a discussion of the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe go to  For additional definitions of nationalism see below.

[1]    Gustavo de las Casas, Is Nationalism Good for You, Foreign Policy, October 8, 2009.

[2]    New Oxford American Dictionary

[3]    Stanford Enclopedia of Philosophy,

[4]    New Oxford American Dictionary

[5]    Politico,


[7]    U.S. Department of State,

[8]    Radio Free Europe,

[9]    Andrew Marantz, Does Hungary Offer a Glimpse of Our Authoritarian Future? The New Yorker, June 27, 2022

[10]   Ishaan Tharoor, Right-wing nationalists are marching into the future by rewriting the past, 

  The Washington Post,  February 11, 2022. 



I argue that nationalism is inherently contradictory to human rights. It requires a specific preference ordering different from other ideologies such as liberalism or socialism. According to this preference ordering, nationalist political actors have the duty of achieving, and then protecting, national unity at any cost and prioritizing national interests over any other concerns. These goals jeopardize certain types of human rights, such as freedom of assembly and association, freedom of speech, and freedom of electoral self-determination, because these rights can be used to challenge the national unity. Moreover, nationalist governments are more reckless about using torture, extrajudicial killing, disappearance, or political imprisonment for the sake of national security given the belief that such “liberal concerns” can be ignored if national interests are at stake.  Emir Yazici, Nationalism and Human Rights, Political Research Quarterly, June 20, 2018

 There is nothing universal about nationalism except that all nationalisms are, well, different and particularistic. Nationalism is devoid of a common idea or principle of government except that a people or a nation-state can be almost anything. Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., The Problem of Nationalism, Dec 13th, 2019.

Adopting the mantle of Nationalism would weaken America’s claim to being an exceptional nation. It would make us just a nation like any other. But most importantly, it would undermine our claim to belonging to a nation that is grounded in principles that are universal—that is, true not just for Americans, but for all human beingsAmerican exceptionalism is built on our founding principles, not cultural and ethnic differences. Americans recognize their varied ethnic and cultural origins, but come together as Americans.  Nationalism is often defined by a sole cultural or ethnic reference, regardless of the form of government…The democratic nation-state, on the other hand, grounds its legitimacy and its sovereignty in democratic governance, and in the American experience, in a government that reflects the principles of natural law.  The American founding was grounded in natural law, not in the idea of the nation-state.  It’s not language, ethnicity, or even ideology that makes us great and good. It’s our creed and how we have woven it into our culture, way of life, and our form of government.  Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., Why American Exceptionalism Is Different From Other Countries’ “Nationalisms”, Sep 29th, 2020.

By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism…By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality. George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism,

The creed of those who believe fidelity to one’s state is of more importance than fidelity to international principles or to individual interests.  Nicholas Hagger, World State, 2018

Nationalism is generally used to describe two phenomena: 1. the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and 2. the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Nationalism refers to the social movements, attitudes, and ideologies which characterize the behavior of nationalities engaged in the struggle to achieve, maintain, or enhance their position in the world.  Louis Wirth, American Journal of Sociology, 1936.

What’s the most powerful political force in the world?...My personal choice for the Strongest Force in the World would be nationalism…The belief that humanity is comprised of many different cultures—i.e., groups that share a common language, symbols, and a narrative about their past (invariably self-serving and full of myths)—and that those groups ought to have their own state has been an overwhelming powerful force in the world over the past two centuries. Stephen M. Walt, The Most Powerful Force in the World, Foreign Policy, July 15, 2011.

The idea that humans form distinct tribes based on a common language, culture, ethnicity, and self-awareness, and that such groups ought to be able to govern themselves, has shaped the history of the past 500 years in ways that many people still do not fully appreciate… It was nationalism—specifically, a desire to regain lost national autonomy—that drove the British decision to leave the European Union…U.S. President Donald Trump rode nationalist nostalgia for an imagined past (“Make America Great Again”) to the White House in 2016, and it forms the basis for the protectionist and anti-immigrant policies that keep his political base loyal now. Nationalism is central to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious efforts to make China a world leader, and it is the common thread uniting right-wing European politicians in France, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Poland. Everywhere one looks, in fact, one sees nationalism at work in today’s world…national sentiment is easily exploited by political leaders, including most of the demagogues whose activities are currently roiling politics around the world. By wrapping themselves in the mantle of patriotism, and constantly warning about the foreigners that are supposedly threatening our way of life, would-be authoritarians such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban or cynical opportunists such as Boris Johnson can convince supporters that they are the only defense against national decline or even extinction. Second, nationalist narratives encourage double standards: They rationalize whatever one’s own side does while depicting similar behaviour by others in the worst possible light. Americans condemn President Vladimir Putin’s Russia for its actions in Ukraine (and they are certainly worthy of condemnation), but we forget that we’ve done plenty of similar things in the past. It is more than a little ironic, for example, when the same people who loudly demanded that the United States invade Iraq in 2003 (on the basis of dubious arguments and manufactured “evidence”) were quick to attack Russia for its interference in Ukraine. Can you spell “hypocrisy”? Stephen M. Walt, You Can’t Defeat Nationalism, So Stop Trying." Foreign Policy, June 4, 2019. Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

When Eric Hobsbawm wrote his seminal study on nationalism in the 1980s, he saw his subject as a dying breed.  Yet, the end of the cold war ushered in a period nationalism, reflected in civil wars and genocide from Yugoslavia to Rwanda. Until recently, that period of nationalist resurgence appeared behind us.  Over the past years, rising nationalism is seen everywhere and in everything. From the election of Donald Trump to Brexit, the nationalist policies of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the success of far-right parties in Italian, German and Austrian elections in 2017 and 2018, nationalism appears to be on rise globally. News coverage of nationalism has been global, focusing on US elections, and British referendum, but also government policies in Philippines, China and India, as well as in South Africa.  After the defeat of Marine Le Pen in French presidential elections in May 2017, the moderate success of far-right candidates Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Norbert Hofer in Austria, some media have speculated that the nationalist and populist wave might be abating…When media talk about nationalism today, they mean a nationalism that includes protectionism, isolationism, xenophobia and anti-elite discourse... Nationalism is best understood as a malleable and narrow ideology, which values membership in a nation greater than other groups (i.e. based on gender, parties, or socio-economic group), seeks distinction from other nations, and strives to preserve the nation and give preference to political representation by the nation for the nation.) Authoritarianism, populism and nationalism are interlinked, yet distinct phenomena…Similar to nationalism, populism is a versatile ideology. It seeks to represent ‘the people’ against an elite, however defined. It thus promotes majoritarianism and rejects institutions that restrain the supposed will of the majority If populists define the people in national terms, a tempting strategy in both nation-states and in multinational states, populism and nationalism merge, whereby the ‘corrupt elite’ can be either a minority, which is accused of holding political or economic power (as is often the case in anti-Semitic or anti-Chinese strategies) or the elite is accused of being beholden to foreign interests. Populists need not be autocrats, but the implicit erosion of checks and balances and the Manichean worldview of populism does lend itself as both a legitimizing strategy for autocrats, or more importantly, populists drift towards authoritarianism in power.  Florian Bieber, Is Nationalism on the Rise? Assessing Global Trends, Ethnopolitics, October 24, 2018, pages 519-540,